Ravens showed character, as well as their flaws

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE RAVENS DESERVE some credit because it was a long week. There were reports about offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh being fired, and he will be unless the Ravens like not going to the playoffs. There were stories about chemistry problems in the locker room, all true.

And then a game was played yesterday. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and tight end Todd Heap were inactive because of injury. Cornerback Deion Sanders didn't play, but what else is new? A lesser team may have given up, but the Ravens prevailed for a 30-23 win against the Miami Dolphins.

But on the way to demonstrating character and playing hard in the season finale, the Ravens also showed why they didn't deserve a postseason berth. They just weren't that good in 2004. They had trouble putting away a four-win Miami team, whose quarterback, Sage Rosenfels, was making his first career start.

The Ravens had to take it down to the wire with a playoff bid on the line and couldn't snuff out the Dolphins despite a 27-7 lead early in the third quarter. If the Ravens would have secured a playoff berth, it would have been one and done just like last season when the Tennessee Titans eliminated the Ravens in the first round.

This team, with all its Pro Bowl selections (13 in two years), was a great underachiever in 2004.

When Ravens safety Ed Reed was asked if he was surprised it was a close game, he said: "No, not at all because I knew the Dolphins were not going to quit. I know a bunch of those guys on that team, and I know they're a 60-minute football team. We're built for it, and we knew they were going to fight, and it was a well-fought game by both sides."

But it was the Ravens' season played out in microcosm. Most of the same problems that surfaced periodically against the Dolphins hampered the Ravens against quality teams like New England, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

They were missing key players because of injuries. They had trouble defending the pass. And they seemed to get tired in the second half of games during the second half of the season. They didn't make plays at crunch time and didn't have a quarterback who could carry the offense.

Where to begin? How about the injuries?

The Ravens never had all of their superstars in the lineup at one time this season. Left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, outside linebacker Peter Boulware, Sanders, running back Jamal Lewis and Heap all missed time because of injuries. The starters missed a combined 49 games this season.

Injuries can be a factor, but can't be used as the major excuse. The Steelers had a ton of injuries, and so did the Patriots.

The Ravens have a lot of playmakers, but some of them didn't make plays. The secondary had the potential to be one of the best in the league with Sanders, Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister and all-everything Reed. Plus, there was Gary Baxter, coming off his best season in 2003, opposite of McAlister. But this group never jelled.

Rosenfels' first pass was a 76-yard touchdown to receiver Chris Chambers down the left sideline as he beat Baxter 16 seconds into the game. Chambers used a double move, which a lot of teams used against the Ravens.

The Ravens blamed it on communication problems, which strangely existed the entire season.

This team just never found a rhythm. Jamal Lewis certainly didn't find one. He ran for 167 yards on 34 attempts against the Dolphins, the hardest he has run all season. This is what the Ravens had initially planned for 2004, but Lewis struggled mentally early in the season because of the federal drug charges against him, which eventually led to a two-game suspension by the league.

He missed two more games because of an ankle injury, and the Ravens' coaching staff made him disappear in other games by allowing second-year quarterback Kyle Boller to throw too often.

But Lewis was like his often-injured offensive line; in, out, in, out.

Without Lewis and a running game, it put more pressure on Boller. But Boller hasn't made much progress since midseason. He's robotic and programmed, and he can't carry a team.

Worse yet, he hasn't had a go-to receiver. The best of the bunch is rookie Clarence Moore, who dropped his umpteenth pass in the fourth quarter. The catch might have sealed the win for the Ravens. Instead, he dropped it, just like Travis Taylor, who has dropped a lot of passes this season.

It's contagious.

But despite all of these problems, the Ravens were able to hang on for a win. They were lucky they were facing Miami, not New England. But the Ravens chose to look at the bright side. They won when they could have been swallowed up by a week of controversy, or folded once the score became close.

"We were fighting an uphill battle; injuries, the playoff picture," Baxter said. "We were trying to keep focused. ... We're a team with character. This game showed a lot of what we're about."

It's not good to be talking about character in Week 17. The good teams talk about next week's game and championships. They can close out big games against good teams. The Ravens had trouble closing out the Dolphins, and it showed all the reasons why the Ravens underachieved in 2004.

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